But now, with the ongoing interruption to normal school routines and chronic social isolation caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, children are feeling more anxious than ever. A recent meta-analysis conducted by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that “[c]hildren and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends.” Even more concerning, Child Mind Institute (childmind.org) reports that 80% of anxious children and adolescents do not get the help they need.
Yet one expert says that, with a little help, parents are the ones best suited to create the emotional and psychological support systems for calming their anxious children – provided those parents learn how to manage their own anxiety first.
“Parents of anxious children must care for themselves, both mentally and physically, so they can provide a calm harbor for a child in the midst of the storm,” says Dr. Tonya Crombie, a certified life coach, speaker, and bestselling author of Stop Worrying About Your Anxious Child: How to Manage Your Child’s Anxiety So You Can Finally Relax. “While most parents are perfectly willing to sacrifice their own wellbeing for the sake of their child, parents don’t realize that they are not able to be the parent they need to be for their anxious child unless they care for themselves first.”
For Dr. Crombie, anxiety in parents and children is not just a professional or an academic interest, but is very personal. She is the mom of two teenagers who have struggled with stress, overwhelm, and anxiety – one of whom recently tested positive for COVID-19. “My experience as a parent of anxious children informs all of my work as a coach, speaker, and writer,” she says. “At the heart of everything I do is the desire to help people thrive in the high-pressure, stressful world in which we live.”
For both parents and children who need help managing anxious thoughts, Dr. Crombie offers the following quick steps: Recognize, Remember, Return.
First: Recognize the anxious feelings when they occur. “So many of us have been operating with constant feelings of stress and anxiety that those feelings tend to go unnoticed,” Dr. Crombie says. “We operate on autopilot so much of the time that we hardly notice we are worrying about the future, or our loved ones, or our job. Simply becoming aware and recognizing this when it happens is more than half the battle.”
Second: Remember that anxiety is a normal response to stress. According to Dr. Crombie, the human brain is designed to be vigilant to potential danger, and the body interprets this instinctual need for self-preservation as anxiety. “Your brain is wired to do this. It’s totally normal,” she says. “Instead of trying to battle your design, accepting that this is normal and that your brain and body are working exactly the way they are supposed to actually starts to make you feel a little better.”
Third: Return to the present. Dr. Crombie explains that anxious thoughts usually come from dwelling on things that may or may not happen in the future. The secret is to come back to the present, and one way to do that is to focus on breathing. “Concentrate on taking long, slow, deep breaths. Truly notice the inhale and the exhale. Feel the temperature of the air as you breath in and out. Notice the rise and fall of your chest,” she suggests. “This super-easy breathing technique can help you return to the present.”
And, according to Dr. Crombie, this focus technique can be utilized with any of the physical senses, not just breathing. “Simply notice what you see in great detail right in this moment. Or focus on what you hear right now. Or focus on what you feel right now – for example, feel your clothes against your skin, or the weight of your body as you stand or sit,” she suggests. “One simple tip I use is to feel my feet by wiggling my toes. Any these techniques can bring you out of the fearful future and back into the peaceful present.”
“Anxiety is on the rise in American children as well as with the parents that are watching their kids in this struggle,” says Dr. Paul M. Friedberg, a licensed psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and parents. “In her book, Dr. Crombie presents insightful, practical help that will make parents feel more grounded and have a better understanding of how they place ‘meaning’ into their children’s behavior and lives. I will recommend this book to parents in my practice who continue to struggle with their child’s anxiety.”
In spite of the hardships brought about by the pandemic, Dr. Crombie believes there is a potential for good to come from it. “When I look at the children who have gone through so much the past year – school closures, loss of loved ones, loss of family income, and so many other losses – I see the potential for these children to rise above these hardships much in the way that children overcame the hardships of the Great Depression to become the greatest generation,” Dr. Crombie says. “I sincerely believe that if we parents are able to give our kids the right kinds of assistance, without overdoing it, this generation of kids will astound us with how well they ultimately come through these difficult times.”
Tonya Crombie has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and an MBA. She is a certified life coach through the Martha Beck Institute and is a requested speaker on the topics of parenting anxious children, leadership, identification and management of strengths, and navigating the way forward when the way is not clear. Dr. Crombie’s work has been featured in The Invisible Illness, P.S. I Love You, Be Unique, and Candour.